Deep in the Tarr Pit [THE TURIN HORSE]

From Film Comment (September-October 2011). — J.R.

Recalling the incident in Turin that reportedly occasioned Friedrich Nietzsche’s final breakdown into madness — his weeping and embracing a cab horse that was being beaten by its driver for refusing to budge — Béla Tarr’s regular screenwriter, novelist László Krasznahorkai, has noted that no one seems to know or ask what happened to the horse. But The Turin Horse is only nominally concerned with this riddle. It’s more concerned with the horse’s driver and his grown daughter, who live in a remote stone hut without electricity, subsisting on an exclusive diet of potatoes and palinka (Hungarian fruit brandy) while a perpetual storm rages outside, then arbitrarily subsides, over a carefully delineated six days. Their abject life remains fixed by a few infernal routines, such as dressing, undressing, drawing water from a well, or looking out the window. (One exterior shot of the daughter doing just that towards the end of the film will haunt me the rest of my life). What passes for plot gradually becomes even more minimal by the driver’s horse first refusing to pull the wagon, then refusing to eat.… Read more »

Lost in Auschwitz [SON OF SAUL]

From the Chicago Reader (January 28, 2016). — J.R.

Son of Saul ****

Directed by László Nemes

Son-of-Saul

 

“The sense of being lost is what we wanted to convey. That is what was missing before [in most earlier movies about the Holocaust]: one individual being lost.” — László Nemes to Andrea Gronvall, Movie City News

sonofsaul

László Nemes’ Hungarian debut feature, Son of Saul, opening this week at the Music Box, is easily the most exciting new film I’ve seen over the past year, and a casual look at the prizes and accolades it’s received over the past eight months, starting with the Grand Prix and the FIPRESCI prize at Cannes, shows that I’m far from alone in feeling this way. Even my colleagues who dislike or dismiss the films concede that it’s a stunning technical achievement. But the moment one starts to describe what the film does, or even what it’s about, a certain amount of dissension sets in.

 

Nemes and his lead actor Géza Röhrig have consistently described their intentions as wanting viewers to experience viscerally and as accurately as possible what Sonderkommando members went through in Auschwitz in October 1944. These were the Jewish prisoners obliged to lead other Jews into the gas chambers, search their clothes for valuables before, during, and after they were being gassed, and then dispose of their bodies — carting them off, burning them, and then shoveling away their ashes, receiving in return slightly better food and quarters before eventually being exterminated themselves.… Read more »

Commercial Correctness

I can happily report that some portions of the following–which originally appeared in the December 24, 1993 issue of the Chicago Reader—are out of date, because all the films reported here as unavailable (I Want To Go Home, The Decalogue, The Lovers of Pont-Neuf) have subsequently become available. —J.R.

We all know what political correctness is–though the nuances of the term may vary depending on whether you’re inside or outside academia and whether or not you regard it as exclusively the preserve of the left. (Personally, I consider Rush Limbaugh and Andrea Dworkin both charter members of the club.) Commercial correctness in movie ideology, however, has yet to be defined, even though it currently engulfs both the entertainment industry and the audience.

Political correctness can be defined as the demand by members of an oppressed minority—or at least those like Limbaugh who consider themselves equivalent to members of an oppressed minority—to be treated with respect. Commercial correctness, on the other hand, can be defined as the demand of members of a reigning majority—or at least those who consider themselves equivalent to members of a reigning majority—that minority works and positions be treated without respect. The goal of commercial correctness, in fact, is to ignore, impede, and eliminate these works and positions—to remove them from the face of the planet as efficiently and unobtrusively as possible.… Read more »

My Filmgoing in 1968: An Exploration

This essay was written for That Magic Moment: 1968 Und Das Kino Eine Filmschau, a film program and publication organized by the Viennale and Stadtkino in late May and early June, 1998. Like some of the other pieces reproduced on this site as featured texts, this has various passages that have been recycled elsewhere in my work — in this case, both in the Chicago Reader and in my book Movie Wars – but it still seems worth reprinting, chiefly for its personal reflections on film history and, more generally, the 60s. — J.R.

My Filmgoing in 1968: An Exploration

by Jonathan Rosenbaum

In 1968, the year I turned 25, I bought my first appointment book — or at least the first appointment book that I’ve bothered to save, and I’ve saved all 30 of the appointment books that I’ve bought and filled since then. For the most part, I use these appointment books to list appointments of various kinds: meetings with friends, planned trips to other cities and countries, classes I plan to teach or lectures I plan to attend or deliver. But most of the entries concern films I plan to see and when or where they’re playing.… Read more »

Letter from Chicago

This was written in early 2003 for Trafic no. 46, their summer issue, where it was translated into French by Jean-Luc Mengus, their managing editor. It’s part of a very wide range of “letters” from cities around the world that they’ve been running for many years. It’s very sad to report that Alexis A. Tioseco, whom I’d recommended to the magazine as the perfect person to write their “Letter from Manila,” was in the middle of fulfilling that assignment when he was murdered. — J.R.

Letter from Chicago

Dear Trafic,

Approaching my 60th birthday and the sort of self-definition that stems in part from the various places I’ve lived, I’ve recently noted that I’ve been anchored in the same place for roughly the first quarter of my life (Florence, Alabama) as well as the past quarter (Chicago).  Yet it seems equally significant that two-thirds of the remaining half of my life have been spent in New York, Paris, and London, where the world is measured and perceived quite differently from the ways it’s encountered in either Florence or Chicago. This includes the world of cinema, which has figured for me as a distinctly separate entity when viewed from the separate vantage points of these five localities.… Read more »

The Color of Paradise

From the Chicago Reader (January 16, 1998). — J.R.

Jour de fête

Rating **** Masterpiece

Directed by Jacques Tati

Written by Tati, Henri Marquet, and Rene Wheeler

With Jacques Tati, Paul Frankeur, Guy Decomble, Santa Relli, and Maine Vallee.

Every Tati film marks simultaneously (a) a moment in the work of Jacques Tati; (b) a moment in the history of French society and French cinema; (c) a moment in film history. Since 1948, the six films that he has realized are those that have scanned our history the best. Tati isn’t just a rare filmmaker, the author of few films (all of them good), he’s a living point of reference. We all belong to a period of Tati’s cinema: the author of these lines belongs to the one that stretches from Mon oncle (1958: the year before the New Wave) to Playtime (1967: the year before the events of May ’68). There is hardly anyone else but Chaplin who, since the sound period, has had this privilege, this supreme authority: to be present even when he isn’t filming, and, when he’s filming, to be precisely up to the moment — that is, just a little bit in advance. Tati: a witness first and last.Read more »

One-Man Armada [on Luis Buñuel]

From the Chicago Reader (November 10, 2000). — J.R.

 

Films by Luis Buñuel

By Jonathan Rosenbaum

It seems to be universally agreed that Luis Buñuel (1900-1983) is the greatest Spanish-language filmmaker we’ve ever had, but getting a clear fix on his peripatetic career isn’t easy. The authorized biography, John Baxter’s 1994 Buñuel, isn’t available in the U.S., and the deplorable English translation of Buñuel’s autobiography, My Last Sigh (1983), is actually an unacknowledged condensation of the original French text. Better are an interview book translated from Spanish, Objects of Desire, and a recently published translation of selected writings by Buñuel in both Spanish and French, An Unspeakable Betrayal, which includes his priceless, poetic early film criticism.

A more general problem is that Buñuel is not only “simple” and direct but full of teasing, unresolvable ambiguities. A master of the put-on, he often impresses one with his earthy sincerity. A political progressive and unsentimental humanist, he was also, I’ve learned from Baxter, an active gay basher in his youth, and those who’ve read the untranslated but reputedly fascinating memoirs of his widow report that he was a very old-fashioned and prudish male chauvinist throughout his life. He was a onetime devout Catholic who lost his faith in his youth and was fond of exclaiming years later, “Thank God I’m still an atheist!” Yet Orson Welles, who never met him, may have had a point when he said, “He is a deeply Christian man who hates God as only a Christian can, and, of course, he’s very Spanish.… Read more »

Good Clean Trash [SCANDAL]

From the Chicago Reader (May 5, 1989). — J.R.

SCANDAL

*** (A must-see)

Directed by Michael Caton-Jones

Written by Michael Thomas

With John Hurt, Joanne Whalley-Kilmer, Bridget Fonda, Ian McKellen, Leslie Phillips, Britt Ekland, Daniel Massey, Roland Gift, and Jeroen Krabbe.

After applauding some of the forthright aspects of High Hopes and other recent English movies in this space two weeks ago, I’m happy to find my generalizations confirmed by a new English docudrama on the John Profumo-Christine Keeler sex scandal of 30 years back. Scandal, the first movie made on this subject, is good, clean, licentious fun.

While the titillating aspects of the story automatically place the film under the general rubric of “trash,” Scandal gleefully embraces its category without being unduly dumb or irresponsible about it. Starting off with an evocative period montage of the late 50s and early 60s, accompanied by the strains of Frank Sinatra’s recording of “Witchcraft,” the movie proceeds to unravel its complex narrative with a kind of polish that excludes any pretense of telling the “whole” story. (The project started out as a five-hour miniseries, and got boiled down to a feature after the BBC decided not to participate, but it is questionable whether the entire story could have been told even at miniseries length.) As a result of the film’s deliberate incompleteness, we can’t entirely account for all the motivations of the two leading characters — Dr.… Read more »

Trying to Have Some Fun (QUILLS, SMOKING, & NO SMOKING)

From the December 15, 2000 issue of the Chicago Reader. — J.R.

Quills

***

Directed by Philip Kaufman

Written by Doug Wright

With Geoffrey Rush, Kate Winslet, Joaquin Phoenix, Michael Caine, Billie Whitelaw, Patrick Malahide, and Amelia Warner.

Smoking

***

Directed by Alain Resnais

Written by Alan Ayckbourn, Jean-Pierre Bacri, Agnès Jaoui, and Anne and Georges Dutter

With Pierre Arditi and Sabine Azéma.

No Smoking

***

Directed by Alain Resnais

Written by Alan Ayckbourn, Jean-Pierre Bacri, Agnes Jaoui, and Anne and Georges Dutter

With Pierre Arditi and Sabine Azema.

Quills is an American adaptation of an American play about the famous 18th-century French libertine the Marquis de Sade, starring Australian, English, and American actors. It is also, in part, an unacknowledged mainstreaming of a more intellectual German play that became famous in the mid-1960s because of an exciting and inventive staging by avant-garde English director Peter Brook — Peter Weiss’s The Persecution and Assassination of Jean-Paul Marat as Performed by the Inmates of the Asylum of Charenton Under the Direction of the Marquis de Sade, popularly known as Marat/Sade. (Brook’s 1966 film adaptation of this intensely theatrical play is a pale shadow of the original.)

Smoking and No Smoking – not a double bill but a pair of interactive features that can be seen in either order, both playing at Facets Multimedia Center this week — are French adaptations of a cycle of eight mainly comic English plays by Alan Ayckbourn.… Read more »

Searching for John Ford

This review appeared originally in Cineaste, Fall 2001. — J.R.

Searching for John Ford

by Joseph McBride. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2001. 838 pp., illus, Hardcover: $40.00

Only sixty pages longer than his other lengthy biography, Frank Capra: The Catastrophe of Success (1992), Joseph McBride’s Searching For John Ford is, in fact, a very different sort of book, and not only because the size and importance of Ford’s work is considerably greater. The earlier volume — a devastating act of demystification that sought to dismantle not only a populist hero, but also the national mythology that virtually willed him into existence — made the value of Capra’s films appear almost secondary. It was suggested, moreover, by Gilberto Perez that McBride even seemed to gloat over the failure of Capra’s farm — that the author’s apparent animus toward his subject spilled over into his cultural critique. For me, the self-deluding aspects of Capracorn — in contradistinction to the erotic splendors of Capra’s best Thirties work — made such a relentless assault on the mythology both useful and necessary.

One might argue that Ford’s career, by contrast, is much too varied and complex to suit any such monolithic agenda, moral or otherwise.… Read more »

The Example of KATZELMACHER

This is the last in a series of four essays I wrote in 2008 about Fassbinder films for Madman, the Australian DVD label. The others, on The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, and Martha, have already been posted on this site. — J.R.

Katzelmacher is only the second feature of Rainer Werner Fassbinder, yet the gulf that separates it from its predecessor, Love is Colder Than Death, is enormous. His first feature, shot over 24 days in April 1969, was later described by its writer-director as the first of his “cinema” films, apparently because its minimal story about petty gangsters seems conceived in relation to genre films. It premiered at the Berlin Film Festival in June, where it was roundly booed and received mixed reviews; it seems fairly safe to conclude that if Fassbinder had made nothing else, most of us would never have heard of him.

This is no doubt why Fassbinder’s somewhat mysterious epigraph for Katzelmacher, credited to his friend and collaborator Yaak Karsunke, reads like a directive to himself: ”It’s better to make new mistakes than to perpetuate the old ones to the point of unconsciousness.” Another directive, more ironic, crops up in one of the film’s final lines of dialogue — “We need a bit of order here” —- which has formal as well as political implications.… Read more »

THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES: half a dozen responses

In my more than 20 years at the Chicago Reader, whenever an old film came to town that had a Reader capsule on file by Dave Kehr, my long-term predecessor at that paper (who left the paper in the mid-1980s), I always had the option of either using that old capsule or writing a new one. On almost every occasion when this happened, I opted for the former — for my money, Dave was and is the best capsule reviewer in the business, bar none. But when it came to The Best Years of Our Lives, I eventually decided that I had to write a new one. Below are the two capsules in question:

Perceived in 1946 (to the tune of nine Academy Awards) as a sign that the movies had finally “grown up,” William Wyler’s study of a group of men returning to civilian life after the war was a tremendous commercial success and helped to create Hollywood’s postwar highbrow style of pseudorealism and social concern. The film is very proud of itself, exuding a stifling piety at times, but it works as well as this sort of thing can, thanks to accomplished performances by Fredric March, Myrna Loy, and Dana Andrews, who keep the human element afloat.… Read more »

“The Doddering Relics of a Lost Cause”: John Ford’s THE SUN SHINES BRIGHT

This was originally published by the Viennale in 2004 as part of a catalogue (Die Früchte des Zorns und der Zärtlichkeit) accompanying a program of John Ford films selected by Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet; it subsequently appeared online in Rouge no. 7 (2005). One can also access Kevin Lee’s two-part video featuring my commentary on both The Sun Shines Bright and Gertrud here and here. — J.R.

“The Doddering Relics of a Lost Cause”: John Ford’s The Sun Shines Bright

by Jonathan Rosenbaum

My father helped to run a small chain of movie theaters in northwestern Alabama that were owned by my grandfather while I was growing up. He and my mother weren’t cinephiles, but on two separate occasions they took the trouble to travel to cities in different states to attend world premieres in the South while I was growing up. One was for a big Southern film from a big studio (M-G-M), Gone with the Wind, held in 1939 in Atlanta. The other was for a small Southern film from a small studio (Republic Pictures), The Sun Shines Bright, held in 1953 in what I believe was a city in Tennessee — most likely Nashville or Chattanooga, possibly Memphis or Knoxville.… Read more »

CALIFORNIA SPLIT (1974 review)

From Monthly Film Bulletin, December 1974 (Vol. 41, No. 491).

It’s really a pity that the version of California Split that eventually came out

on DVD, due to musical clearances, had to eliminate some of the play with

Phyllis Shotwell’s songs alluded to here. (For a much later consideration of

this film, including these changes, go here.) — J.R.

CALIFORNIA SPLIT

 

 

U.S.A., 1974Director: Robert Altman

In a poker game at a gambling casino near Los Angeles, Charlie

Waters, a winner, is accused by Lew, a sore loser, of playing in

 

cahoots with the dealer, Bill Denny. Bill and Charlie become

acquainted afterwards in a nearby bar and get cheerfully drunk

together; outside, they are beaten up by Lew (with the help of

friends), who makes off with their winnings. Charlie invites

Bill to stay over at his house, which he shares with two

prostitutes, Barbara and Susan. In the morning, Bill returns to

his job on a glossy magazine but is persuaded to take off that

afternoon and join Charlie at the racetrack, where they make

a small fortune on one of Charlie’s hunches. Wanting to celebrate

with Barbara and Susan, they pretend to be policemen in order to

intimidate the girls’ transvestite client “Helen” and persuade

him to leave, then go to a prizefight.… Read more »

Master Thief (FEMME FATALE)

This appeared in the Chicago Reader’s November 8, 2002 issue. –J.R.

Femme Fatale

*** (A must-see)

Directed and written by Brian De Palma

With Antonio Banderas, Rebecca Romijn-Stamos, Peter Coyote, Gregg Henry, Rie Rasmussen, and Eriq Ebouaney.

By my count, Femme Fatale is Brian De Palma’s 26th feature, and as I watched it the first time two months ago I found myself capitulating to its inspired formalist madness — something I’ve resisted in his films for the past 30-odd years. De Palma’s latest isn’t so much an improvement on his earlier work as a grand synthesis of it — as if he set out to combine every previous thriller he’d made in one hyperbolically frothy cocktail. So we get split-screen framing; bad girls; sweetie-pie male suckers; verbal and physical abuse; lots of blood; a melodramatic story stretched out over many years; slow-motion, lyrically rendered catastrophes; noirish lighting schemes favoring venetian blinds; it-was-all-a-dream plot twists; scrambled and recomposed plot mosaics; obsessional repetitions of sound and image; pastiches of familiar musical pieces (in this case Ravel and Satie); nearly constant camera movements; and ceiling-height camera angles. Best of all, we often get several of these things simultaneously. (One of the few De Palma movies for which he takes sole script credit, Femme Fatale is nothing if not personal.) What I haven’t liked about his work is still there, but I’ve had to readjust how I see it.… Read more »